The information I’m about to tell you is intensely personal. I’ve debated with myself for many years over whether or not I should speak of it publicly. I’ve feared it will change the way people see me, lessening their regard for me. But I came to the realization that it’s a story that must be heard—and not in spite of the fear of people’s reactions, but because of it. That fear is at the root of this problem, and until it’s diminished, the problem will remain ever powerful. I decided that I have to do my part in this fight, a fight to change the image of the mentally ill.
When it comes to mental disorders like schizophrenia, bipolar, obsessive/compulsive and multiple personality, the focus most often falls on the extremes. Crime shows on television, like Law and Order and CSI, will regularly associate them with violent criminals. The paparazzi fight to get shots of celebrities in moments when they’re out of control just as they did repeatedly with Britney Spears. The first question people ask when someone takes his or her own life—or that of others like we recently saw in Aurora—is about his or her state of mind. Comedic television shows, like Monk, revel in the bizarre behaviors. Rarely do we hear about those who successfully navigate the disorder, becoming not only productive in society, but perhaps even a significant contributor to it. John Nash would not have become a household name if it wasn’t for the film A Beautiful Mind.
This dichotomy promotes the misconception that people inflicted with such disorders make choices about their behavior. It seems to say, "Just don’t do that. Accept the way life is. Listen to the people around you who tell you how things are or should be." Yet, that is akin to telling someone with epilepsy, "Don’t have seizures anymore." Without proper medical and psychiatric care—and sometimes even with it—these behaviors can be impossible to control. Moreover, getting help is not as easy as going to a doctor like one would for epilepsy despite the fact that research has shown that mental disorders and epilepsy have much in common.
First, there’s the stigma associated with the disorders. That alone can dissuade someone from reaching out. When you call for an appointment, the psychiatrist (or the secretary of the office) will ask why you want to come in. You can’t get away with just, "I think I have a problem." He or she will ask you what symptoms you have, and it’s scary because saying out loud the things you have done make them vividly real and undeniable. You wonder what people will think of you once they know. Worse, you believe that the word "crazy" will be associated with you forever.
Second, the process of getting a proper diagnosis and then appropriate medication is long, arduous and uncomfortable. It can even be physically painful as all medications for these types of disorders have side effects, ranging from weight gain to nausea to headaches and more. They often have very short half-lives, which means withdrawal symptoms appear quickly and are extremely harsh (even if it's only an hour past your designated time to take them). It takes months—or years—to determine if the medication is the right kind and dosage. For most people, misdiagnosis leads to further problems as anti-depressants can trigger episodes of the disorder.
As I finished out my twenties, all of that became an inescapable part of my life. After an adolescence and young adulthood of emotional upheavals and erratic behavior, I knew it was either get help or die. I had periods of my life characterized by fearlessness, recklessness, and unparalleled creativity sandwiched by depression so deep that getting out of bed was a monumental task. Life was either idyllic or horrific.
Things took a dramatic turn for the worse after I got a severe concussion. I became prone to brutal outbursts of anger or tears. Suicidal thoughts that once were a weekly occurrence came to dominate my days. A coworker suggested to me that I might have bipolar disorder. He was familiar with the signs as his wife had it. I went to my doctor and asked him if it might be possible. "What?? No way. You’re not bipolar." I tried again, this time with a psychologist. She didn’t show up for the appointment.
So I continued suffering until the day I admitted that the only thing keeping me alive was the mess in my apartment. I didn’t want my mom to have to clean it up after I was dead. With renewed determination, I tried again. I got a list of 15 psychiatrists covered by my insurance company and called them, one-by-one, trying to set up an appointment. Each one had a reason I couldn’t been seen. Not taking new patients. Don’t deal with bipolar disorder. No available slots but call back in six to eight weeks. 15 phone calls. 15 rejections. I screamed and cried and threw things. I started cleaning and planning. And then I called my insurance company and forced them to find someone for me.
The psychiatrist confirmed that I had bipolar disorder, and it took two years to become stable. When I did, I was distraught over the fact I’d lost ten years of my life while I was drowning in the pain and tragedy of the disorder. I’d declared bankruptcy and was horribly in debt again. I weighed 200 pounds. I’d destroyed relationships. However, nothing compared to knowing that my most precious dream would never be realized: having my own child. Between my age and the disorder, neither natural nor adoptive parenthood was possible.
When people ask me, "Why aren’t you married? Why didn’t you have kids?" I make something up. If I tell them it’s because of bipolar disorder, they get this look on their faces. I imagine them thinking that word: crazy.
The irony is that I'm more aware of my behavior than most who don't have a disorder. I work hard at maintaining a certain lifestyle that helps me remain stable. I have active coping mechanisms that I know work. I'm proactive with my relationships and am very clear upfront about what I need and what doesn't work with me. I am actually more in control of my behavior than a large part of the population. But that doesn't really matter; in the public's eye, being bipolar means being a nutcase.
I feel bitter and angry that, through the media, people are conditioned to think that way. The extremes of the disorders sell more, bring more viewers. But shouldn’t we talk instead about the Isaac Newtons, Winston Churchills and Ludwig van Beethovens of the world, all of whom had a mental disorder? Wouldn’t it be good to talk about how Abraham Lincoln, a man revered around the world, suffered from suicidal depression or that NFL player and Superbowl champion Lionel Aldridge was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic? If the public saw these stories associated with mental illness instead of mass murderers or people out of control, we might have a chance at evading deadly consequences like that we saw with Rick Rypien and Kurt Cobain. More importantly, we might give 26.2% of adults in the US and 20% in Canada, among others, the opportunity to live without fear of rejection, assumptions and ridicule. Most importantly, they wouldn’t have to work as hard as I did to get help, and maybe it can come soon enough that ten years of their lives won’t be gone forever.
The fight to end sexism, homophobia and ethnic stereotyping continues to persevere; it’s time that fight included the mentally ill. These are physiological disorders with psychological symptoms. We support people born with medical conditions. We need to support, in equal measure, people born with mental conditions.
For anyone who would like to know more about mental disorders or would like to find help, here are some resources:
The National Alliance on Mental Illness
Mental Health America
List of Support Groups and type-specific resources